Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Never before in the history of mankind have we had such a wealth of information at our disposal. However, it is the ability to translate this data into insight and, in turn, transform insight into strategy that separates the winners from the losers.

A September Harvard Business Review cover article titled “Building an Insights Engine – How Unilever got to Know its Customers”, written by marketing consultancy Kantar Vermeer’s Frank van den Driest and Unilever’s Stan Sthanunathan and Keith Weed, highlights the characteristics required to create customer-centricity and drive business growth. The authors write that Unilever’s mission is to “inspire and provoke to enable transformational action”. They intentionally don’t include the word “insight”, because insights provide only the means to the desired end.

A true insight differs from a finding or an observation in that insight transforms action, while a finding merely guides it. For example, the fact that many men use cosmetics is a finding or observation. The insight is that men feel uncomfortable buying cosmetics – and this is something that could be used by cosmetic brands to increase sales.

The recent annual “How Africa Tweets” report – which focuses on Twitter trends, hash tags and the online habits of those living in Africa – found that the second most popular hash tag in SA last year was #FeesMustFall. However, surprisingly, Egypt had significantly more tweets using this hash tag than SA did, perhaps suggesting a pan-African collective interest in social issues.

Data has become cheaper and faster. But, as the authors of “Building an Insights Engine” note, it’s not the quantity of data that matters, but how researchers and marketers connect the data to make sense of information – because even the simplest insights can unlock powerful business decisions. Simple insights, such as how a brand is displayed in a space-constrained spaza shop and where its logo appears, can all affect sales. The learning point here is that branding should be easily recognisable, regardless of how the product is displayed.

Unilever is using technology to close the gap between data and insight, and using data to inform decisions. However, it takes an understanding of both the business and the brand to identify opportunities and turn a finding into an insight – and then into action.

At Unilever, everybody is encouraged to provide insight and be part of the conversation. Recognising that the most effective insights are those that lead to actionable strategies and produce tangible business results, Unilever has set up programmes to develop employee’s capabilities beyond functional skills so they can improve their ability to turn insights into results.

Typically, insights engines gather and analyse data. However, in today’s rapidly evolving business landscape, that is no longer enough to ensure success in customer-centricity. Instead, leaders need to guarantee that every area of the business adopts a single-minded focus towards interpreting and meeting consumers’ fundamental needs. Every employee needs to have the ability to turn observations into actionable business insights, as this is what will differentiate the company from its competitors.

The Harvard Business Review article is based on “Insights2020”, a study led by Kantar Vermeer for which business leaders and marketers across the globe were interviewed.

The big take-out: Marketing insights need to be translated into actions that produce tangible business results.


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